“Jen’s nickname, Mango Mama, could not be more appropriate! She uses mangos in the most unexpected ways, both in savory and sweet recipes. With this book in hand, you will never look at a mango the same way again.”—Ingrid Hoffman, host of the Food Network’s Simply Delicioso
Jen Karetnick will also present her book at the Miami Book Fair International on Saturday, November 22, at 12:30 p.m. Go to building 8, room 8202, Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus (300 NE Second Avenue). And don’t forget to stop by our booth while you’re there!
Today we talk with Jen Karetnick and find out exactly when she decided to write a cookbook, why she chose mangos, and what the story is behind the Mango House and Miami’s “Mango Gang.”
“We were wandering around, getting lost, and found this beautiful old house sitting on an acre lot at the end of a block-long side street. I didn’t even know about the mango trees at the time. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, if I could live there, I’d be happy for the rest of my life.’”
After the first season of picking—pardon me, picking up—mangos, I knew there was a book in this. I could see the delight in people’s faces when I gave them the fruit, the calculation in the eyes of my friends who are chefs, and even the humor in the misery of collecting the blown fruit. I started writing articles about my adventures with mangos almost immediately.
How did you first discover your passion for mangos, and what made them stand out from other fruit?
I really didn’t know that I had one. I’d never even tasted a freshly picked mango, eaten out of hand. We were simply looking for a house with fruit trees. I was thinking citrus, because I loved grapefruit, and lemons and limes were always good to have around, but those were the years that citrus canker had started to spread. I’m fortunate that I wound up with mangos, because they remind me of peaches, which I grew up loving in New Jersey, and have fond memories of going to orchards to pick. They’re also a lot more versatile than people think and can go savory or sweet, and can be eaten green or dried. In addition, they freeze well. I’ve discovered since those very naïve days that I actually don’t like a few tropical fruits, among them papaya and mamey sapote. The textures of those fruits make me gag. Had I moved into Papaya House, I probably would have moved out by now!
Mango House was built in the 1930s and has trees just as old—how did you acquire this historic home and grove?
My husband was fresh out of his medical residency and had just been hired by his practice. We had one child, a two-year-old girl, and a baby boy on the way. We were living in a townhouse on South Beach at the time, so it was clear we’d need more space, a more conducive atmosphere for raising kids, and a middle point between the two hospitals he was going to be bouncing between. This tiny village of Miami Shores was it. We were wandering around, getting lost, and found this beautiful old house sitting on an acre lot at the end of a block-long side street. I didn’t even know about the mango trees at the time. I thought to myself, “Wow, if I could live there, I’d be happy for the rest of my life.” Then we found out how much it cost. Long story short, we chose a different house and the deal fell through. The same thing happened to the second house we found! That’s when our Realtor called us and told us that Mango House had gone off the market and come back on $200,000 cheaper. We couldn’t believe it. We were the first ones in the door.
Do you remember the first mango dish you prepared with your homegrown mangos?
Salsa. Mango salsa. That first summer, I made vats of it. Jon made huge amounts of frozen daiquiris. We threw open house parties every weekend, getting to know our neighbors, inviting our friends from South Beach to come pick mangos and swim in the pool, just basically relaxing and watching the mangos fall in a kind of stupefied wonder.
This book really shows the versatility of this fruit. What is your favorite way to eat a mango?
One of my favorite ways to eat a mango is actually one of the simplest. I like a big scoop of vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt, topped with freshly cut-up mango—warm from the tree is the best so you get those variances between temperatures—and sprinkled with granola. Any kind of store-bought ice cream and granola will do, but I actually prefer that the ice cream be on the milkier rather than the rich side. It’s a light dish that should showcase the fruit. I’ve been known to have this for dinner. Several bowls of it. For days on end.
Can you tell us about the “Mango Gang” and how they have influenced this cookbook?
The Mango Gang were all young chefs experimenting with fusion techniques when I moved to Miami in 1992. It was Norman Van Aken, Mark Militello, Allen Susser and Douglas Rodriguez. They all had their own take on it, but they were basically incorporating the local and seasonal tropical ingredients and incorporating the Latin and Caribbean methods—which themselves were influenced by Asian and African techniques—to create some very tasty and yet high-end fare. I was entranced with them, as many were. It was Norman who set me on the idea of writing a cookbook.
Your recipes in Mango are easy to follow, which is beneficial to a chef at any skill level. Do you have a sentence of advice for beginner chefs?
Don’t be afraid to try—there’s no judgment here. I don’t have good knife skills either!
Is there a question you wish we would have asked you?
Some people have been asking me, why publish a book when there’s so many recipes available online? Why not just put your recipes online? Maybe I’m just old school, but I like having a book open on my counter, getting it dusted with flour, cracking the spine, staining it with oil. It feels like work. Cooking with an iPad feels antiseptic. Plus, what’s going to happen to a book when one of my cats jumps on the counter and pushes off the book before I can reach her? Nothing. But an iPad? That’s a $400 oops!